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Leaving the crisis behind: public opinion and communications industry

Digital format, 14/05/2020, Digital Panel Discussion

For Italy, as for many other countries of the world, Covid-19 has been nothing less than a social “stroke” that has forced the economy and society into a slow recovery that is going to take at least two years, if not four, as the less optimistic are predicting. According to DOXA, 65% of Italians consider the health emergency still the prevailing concern, 35% are more fearful of the pandemic’s economic consequences, 66% are convinced they will not be able to maintain their standard of living or protect their savings, while only 8% have no personal economic worries.

The initial lockdown phase, when the entire country became a red zone, experienced a quantum leap in the use of digital technologies, and it is highly probable that there will be no turning back once the emergency has subsided. Smart working and distance learning are here to stay in one form or another. Once the quarantine went into effect, it was up to the communications industry to convince people to stay at home and workers to engage in smart working, which has led to the broadest and most coordinated social communication plan ever attempted in the post-war era.

With regard to televised communications, the pandemic has meant a stronger role for public communication services in Italy that has come with the radical relocation of cultural events such as theatre, opera, concerts and art exhibitions to the virtual arena. National television services are going to be highly instrumental in the future to supporting the recovery of the Italian cultural sector. After schools were shut down, RAI [the Italian public broadcasting company] began supplementing the didactic programming of its various dedicated channels and, as proof of the services’ important relationship with the society, the viewership of regional news programs has risen 40% during the pandemic. Finally, the digital platform RAIPLAY is reporting a major success with 127 million visitors and one billion clicks in one year, a 14% increase that includes a jump in use by the under-40 segment.

Television as a whole has had good results, with an audience increase of 35%, equal to 3.5 million viewers. Private digital platforms too have been reporting a considerable increase in news programming; according to DOXA, 58% of Italians consider TV news a source of reliable information. The public is once again showing considerable discriminatory skill in rating the credibility of sources, despite some conspicuous missteps such as the communication errors of the WHO and the not always coherent or consistent televised explanations of virologists and epidemiologists. Journalism has also had a noteworthy investigative role regarding some grey areas, especially with regard to China’s weeks-long delay in announcing the epidemic. It is essential that this consensus on communications sources not go to waste.

The economic emergency owing to the pandemic will also lead to changes in corporate leadership, with an increase in the strategic role of digital communication and technology. Increased focus will be on brand reputation, smart working will reconfigure the physical workplace and top management will have to follow a leadership model based on credibility rather than physical control. Firms will assign greater importance to civic values and firms themselves will be redesigned around values such as citizenship and sustainability that, moreover, will be understood in a manner different to the traditional paradigm of Corporate Social Responsibility.

The quantum leap of digitalization has convinced many companies to change their organizational models: Smart working is up a full 8%; exponential growth is being seen in the use of virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom, which has reported a 56% increase in performance. The pandemic has not only accentuated existing attitudes and behaviors; it has also introduced new ones. Video-calls are the popular choice for everything from happy hour get-togethers, to greetings between family and friends to concert attendance. Social network activity has ballooned, with Instagram reporting four-fold growth and, far from a predictable outcome, the web has held up admirably. Traffic has doubled, even though this has not meant an automatic increase in revenues, and neither should the increased use of mobile phones be discounted. Thus, it is paramount that the network be completed to reach all those blind spots in Italy still awaiting fiber installation.